King County fentanyl overdoses spike to record high

As International Overdose Awareness Day dawns on Aug. 31, Washington state's largest county has set a new record for fentanyl-related deaths in one year. Public Health – Seattle & King County reports that 217 people in the county have died this year from confirmed fentanyl overdoses. The previous top total, 172 deaths, was set last year.

UW Medicine addiction researcher Caleb Banta-Green says drug manufacturers and dealers are purposefully making and selling counterfeit pills that are actually illegally made fentanyl. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

“It's usually made to look like pills, so it has this image of safety. But it is profoundly strong and has very, very high risk for both addiction and overdose. And it's really just flooding the market,” says Banta-Green. He is the principal research scientist at the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute (ADAI), within in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The probability of illegally-purchased pills containing fentanyl has grown extremely high, he says. “If you didn't get that pill from a pharmacy, it is 99% likely to be fentanyl, and there's no way for you to tell."

Data compiled by the Addiction, Drug and Alcohol Institute show the rise in synthetic opioid-related deaths in Washington state since 2015.

An important factor in the fight to slow the momentum of fentanyl is minimizing the stigma for people who are battling an addiction.

“The vast majority of people don't want to be using," says Banta-Green. "They want to reduce their use, they want to stop their use, but they're not currently able to access services. And part of that might also be that when they do ask for help from friends and family, there's a lot of shame and stigma that kind of pushes them back into the shadows.”

Read a related Q&A  with Banta-Green about the growth in fentanyl use.



UW Medicine